Surviving the Siege

When the usual tricks aren’t working

I thought getting through January was enough. I’d avoided making any resolutions I would not follow through on. I’d read and listened to several books, finished a podcast series on race, painted a room.

Then, the Siege.

Arctic air some of us haven’t experienced before or can’t recall, it’s been so long since temperatures here registered lower than Antarctica. (So cold that the previous sentence doesn’t have a verb.)

What to do when we are in virtual lockdown in our own homes?

The usual tricks weren’t working. I finished a book but couldn’t get out of my chair to fetch another. My office is begging to be decluttered but I can’t seem to see the piles all around. I dare not take a walk, not after listening to the dire warnings on MPR of exposure, frostbite, hypothermia, death. Frightful stories on the scale of news from Washington that were followed by a story of the Arrowhead 135, an annual endurance race of that number of miles across northern Minnesota that 146 people who need a challenge started yesterday.

“If you get a warm year,” one regular participant said, “it’s almost like you got cheated.”

Ha.

This morning I was at my desk, as usual, feeling just a little cheated that I wouldn’t be walking outdoors today, as is my habit. Even through the shades, the room had begun to brighten. It was time to open them, I decided, calculating that the overall effect of sun in (not to mention the lift it brings me) was greater than the draft that would come with it. This is what I saw:

 

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Maybe it’s a matter of perspective, this Siege.

I’d worry about my mental health if I was stuck indoors long-term, but for now, I’m embracing it. Last night I spent an hour in the basement, trowel in hand, planting canna and elephant ear bulbs. Today, a jigsaw puzzle. I won’t ever attempt the Arrowhead 135, but I can see why some people do. There’s something about not doing the usual.

Things could be a lot worse, I tell myself, still in my chair, staring out the frosted window. I could be married to Donald Trump.

What’s Your Story?

Finding the narrative that runs through your life

My first writing teacher was Marion Dane Bauer. After taking a class from her through The Loft Literary Center, I joined a workshop that met twice a month in her home. Here our small group took turns reading from our works-in-progress and getting feedback. Besides writing On My Honor, a Newbery Honor Book, and other works of fiction, she wrote What’s Your Story?, a practical guide for young writers who want to attempt fiction.

This past November, I spent three days in Chicago with my siblings. We live in different states and rarely have a chance to be altogether. What better place to have a reunion, we decided, than our home town. And what better activity than to go to museums, a practice our parents instilled in us as they stressed the importance of lifelong learning. In my search for things to do, I noticed that The American Writers Museum had opened on Michigan Avenue a year earlier. It was an easy sell as we’re all avid readers. One morning we spent a few hours making our way down a long hallway, reading panels on well over 200 writers. It was a lot of information–too much, we decided, to take in in a single visit.

At the end of the alley, on the back wall, was this quote from James Baldwin:

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Of all I took in that morning, this is the quote that I remember. This is the idea that won’t let me go. It was as if with his serious expression, Baldwin was challenging me to answer the question “What’s my story?” as I work on my memoir. Yet I quickly realized the “larger” and “reverberating” aspects to my individual story. His quote carried universal appeal, if not application. We don’t need to be writers to ask ourselves, “What is my story?” We don’t need to be writers to recognize that there is a fundamental theme or narrative that runs through our lives.

What’s your story?

In all the writing I’ve done—the young adult novels, the poetry, the journaling, this blog, and now the memoir—a single thread runs through it. My story is coming to terms with a sense of unworthiness and learning to accept (read love) myself for who I am.

In the preface of her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama explains how her parents helped her see the value in her story. “Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

What’s your story? How does it shape you? How does it limit you? How does it reflect who you really are and how does it perpetuate messages it may be time to delete? How does it shield you from suffering, and how does it ask you to risk everything?

Baldwin’s quote reminds me that answering the question “What’s your story?” is an ongoing process. We run, we fall, we pick ourselves up again and blunder on. It is the very act of living.

A Child Shall Lead Them

Seeking a new way of knowing

Anthony Basta, a 17-year-old from St. Paul, described himself in his high school yearbook as “Just a kid growing up!” Five months later, on April 26, 2000, he was the victim of a drive-by shooting—a senseless, random act by three “kids” out on a dare.

On Mississippi River Boulevard, between Jefferson and Randolph Avenues, sits a rock with a plaque at the site of the shooting. The plaque is inscribed with Tony’s words, dated 12/1/99. Had he lived, Tony would be 35 years old today.

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This past Saturday, I was walking south on River Boulevard, noticing the first flakes of what would be a short but powerful storm that socked the southern part of the state. I saw the plaque as I’ve seen it countless times during my regular walks, bike rides, and drives along this scenic road. The rock has become such a part of the landscape that I hardly acknowledge it anymore.

But this time, I noticed the date. December 1, 19 years ago to the day. December 1, the first day of Advent.

For the rest of the weekend, I thought about Tony Basta. I thought about him during Sunday’s sermon, when I heard the preacher say, “Each of us is dying a little every day.” I thought about Tony during the adult forum, where we discussed Jesus as avatar, God in human form.

I also thought about the devotions I receive each morning in my inbox from Richard Rohr. This particular one began, “In one way or another, almost all religions say that you must die before you die . . . Some form of death—psychological, spiritual, relational, or physical—is the only way we will loosen our ties to our small and separate false self. Only then does it return in a new shape, which we might call the Risen Christ, the soul, or the True Self . . . You move from religion as mere belief to religion as a new kind of knowing.” (November 22, 2018)

I have lived for 65 Advents. This year, I’ve asked myself what it is I’m waiting for. Is it a baby born in a manger? Is it an avatar that stands in for God?

I’m waiting for more than “mere belief,” I realize. I’m seeking nothing less than a re-imagined faith, or a faith that reflects a re-imagined self, one that can reconcile the sin I’m imprisoned by with a more life-giving emphasis on being created in God’s likeness. I want a faith that allows me to hold guilt and self-worth in the same sentence. I want my prayers to come from my heart, more honest and spontaneous. I want the faith I’ve lugged with me since childhood to make sense for me today.

Perhaps I’m like Tony, just a kid when it comes to my faith, growing up within the uncertainties of life, ever seeking to move from “no” to “yes.”

Rohr concludes his devotion: “Once you know that life and death are not two but are part of a whole, you will begin to view reality in a holistic, undivided way, and that will be the change that changes everything.”

Waiting doesn’t mean being passive. The change, the growing up, starts within. I must make myself vulnerable. I must be willing to be transformed, however that transformation comes.

Tony Basta, bless his sweet memory, has inspired me to follow him on his beloved silver BMX, down every road, into every question, through every challenge, even if it means “dying” along the way.

 

 

It’s Been A Week

Seeking a way to start again

As my pastor said today in his sermon, “It’s been a week.” He was referring, of course, to the many disturbing events that were in the forefront of the news.

  • Matthew Shepard was laid to rest 20 years after he was beaten and left to die because he was gay.
  • A caravan of people walking from Central America to our border, where 800 U.S. troops will prevent them from seeking asylum from the violence and poverty they are trying to leave behind.
  • A mentally unstable man and Trump supporter with a long rap sheet mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats.
  • Eleven people were gunned down inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
  • 400,000 children are at risk of dying from malnutrition in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia wages war by cutting off food supplies to civilians.

As a country, as a world, it has been a week. A week that reflects an ongoing intolerance of “the other.” Can the bar get any lower?

My pastor’s comment made me consider my week. Mine has been a week as well, but in a very different, hopeful way.

  • I began fostering an 18-month-old golden retriever rescued from neglect and abuse. After a few days of adjusting, she has shown that indomitable spirit of her breed.
  • A friend who was diagnosed with sarcoma this past summer and has been through chemo and two surgeries met with her oncologist, who gave her every reason to believe she is going to survive.
  • A dear aunt—the last of her generation in my family—passed away peacefully, surrounded by loved ones who were able to say their good-byes. While we will all miss her down-to-earth goodness, we will gather to celebrate her 94 years and acknowledge those other loved ones gone before her who are now welcoming her home.
  • I heard two wonderful authors speak. Min Jin Lee wrote Pachinko, a sweeping historical novel of Korean Japanese culture. Megan O’Gieblyn, a former teacher of mine, read from her collection of essays, Interior State, in which she explores being from the Midwest and her “deconversion” from an evangelical background.
  • Saturday I attended a class at The Loft, taught by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. Most of the participants are working on a full-length project and some are nearing completion. Elizabeth gave us a new lens for considering the power a finished manuscript continues to exert on us and the world, whether or not it’s published.

It has been a week. A week of feeling as if things are coming apart at the seams, and a week of sewing up, stitch by stitch, the torn places. Soon I will head to a nordic contemplative service, where the theme for these Sunday evening services is the chance to start again. Just what we all need.

If I Had a Song

The day our national narrative began to shift

The other day I surprised myself when I wrote this sentence:

“I long imagined myself to be a writer, a feminist, and an activist, only to realize that for many years I wasn’t really practicing any of these.”

Writer and feminist, I conceded, I could make a case for. What was living but a chance to accumulate material for writing? And hadn’t feminism long informed my values and actions? But activist? That was the word that gave me pause. It conjures someone marching in a crowd, waving a sign and shouting, or lying down in the street, waiting to be arrested. Definitely not me.

Then a message arrived in my in-box early this morning. It was a reminder from Liz, a musician, writer friend, and sometime DJ, who was hosting a radio program on KFAI on protest songs. Comforted to know I wasn’t the only person awake at 5:15 a.m., I responded immediately to tell her I planned to listen. As I made breakfast, I started humming.

Later, ear buds in place, I queued up her show while mowing, never enjoying cutting the grass quite so much. With the first chords of “If I had a hammer,” I teared up. My voice and heart swelled to the familiar lyrics. Many of the songs played were written decades ago, but the spirit behind them is timeless. There were songs from the labor movement like “Solidarity Forever” by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and “Joe Hill,” sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock. Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit and Judy Collins, “Bread and Roses.” (To hear the complete show, go to kfai.org, select “On Demand,” and choose “Stone Soup” for September 12.)

I grew up on this music. It shaped me. More than anything, it planted a seed in me. So what if the seed had been dormant for a long time?

Yesterday, my friend Claire and I showed up at the federal building near Ft. Snelling, where we have volunteered to sit in on immigration hearings for people who have been detained and whose futures are being determined: asylum, voluntary departure, detention, removal. Our role is to observe the judge, the attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, and the detainee’s legal counsel, if there is any, and note if any human rights are being violated. If a person doesn’t speak English, is a translator present? If the person doesn’t have legal representation, does the judge explain the purpose of the hearing and answer the person’s questions? We’ve been impressed by the judge and grateful when detainees have a lawyer sitting next to them. So far, we’ve seen no one’s rights being violated. But what we have seen are people shackled at the wrists and ankles, many from countries where human rights violations and violence are ongoing.

As we left the federal building, Claire noticed the flag at half-mast. 9-11. We paused, probably each remembering where we were when the Twin Towers collapsed. That was when I saw the straight line connecting that day and this one.

9-11 left our country reeling. We’d never been attacked like that before. Out of the shock of violation came a sprawling fear that lumped “everyone else” into one. It was on that day that our national narrative began to shift from red, white, and blue to black and white.

Maybe because of my “day in court,” certain lines from the songs I listened to lingered:

Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.

How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?

If I had a song, it would be a protest song. “I’d sing out danger, I’d sing out warning, I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”

 

 

 

Making Muffins

Enjoying not knowing what we might do next

I should have seen it coming.

That’s the great wisdom of hindsight, if only to remind me I’m not all that wise. But I am a planner, too often sure that I would have seen it coming, whatever “it” was, and adjusted accordingly, or avoided “it” in the first place. Planning, I need to remind myself, is not the same as anticipating.

“It” began with a busy spring. I was rekindling a romantic relationship, gearing up for gardening, anticipating a visit from my brother, preparing for two weeks in Scotland and Sweden, and, soon to turn 65, applying for Medicare.

“It” continued the day I returned from my trip in late June. That same day marked the arrival of Jim and my son and daughter-in-law. I was jet lagged, eager to see everyone, overwhelmed by a yard in need of attention just as a heat wave hit, still processing my trip, and suddenly living with someone again.

I should have seen it coming. “It” being, of course, life and its many twists and turns.

“Not knowing what the future will bring is hard for you,” a wise friend recently commented.

So when my granddaughter Sophie was going to spend a day with me this past week, I had all kinds of plans for our time together. We would go to the Como Zoo in the morning. After her nap, we’d check out a neighborhood park with a wading pool and playground. In between we would do a few craft projects. And, as a backup, I hauled up tubs of toys from the basement.

Nothing turned out as planned. The weather was unpredictable. Instead of going to the zoo, Sophie worked up enough courage to pet a neighbor’s cat. Instead of swimming, Sophie donned her helmet and cruised down the sidewalk on her Strider (a bike without pedals) as I ran to keep up.

“Would you like to make muffins?” I asked when we got back. She nodded.

While the muffins baked, we painted. Then the sun came out and we went for another bike ride, following a loud sound up the alley to where workers were reroofing a garage. Sophie wanted me to lift her up so she could see better. The voice inside me that was trying to organize our next activity was drowned out by pounding hammers and her complete attention on the workers.

Our day went this way, unfolding easily, randomly. I found myself almost enjoying not knowing what we might do next—like retirement is supposed to be. A puzzle? Writing on the sidewalk with chalk? Telling her a story before naptime (hers and mine)?

Her days are highly structured around day care and her parents’ schedules. Mine, around my plans. Maybe Sophie and I both needed a break.

I plan so I can be prepared, as if this is a necessary, if not essential life goal. Then I can continue the belief that I have some control. But life seems to keep testing this theory in which I’ve invested most of my money. Instead of a more traditional trajectory for love, I am experimenting with what a long-distance relationship might look like “at my age.” Once regular morning walks with a neighbor are less frequent, shadowed by a cancer that has upended her life. I am a woman who spends her day with words, but I hardly know what to say that doesn’t sound lame.

Surprises are great when it’s a birthday, not so welcome when an election or diagnosis is involved. That’s when I have to admit how little control I have over anything and everything, except how many cups of coffee I drink in a day.

My husband Chris had a heart condition that we knew would eventually take him, but we had constructed our own ending: retirement, grandchildren, some travel, then death. We never expected death to come early because we’d made it convenient for us.

I spent months mapping out a trip that was changed by a missed connection. Who doesn’t keep some kind of bucket list to convince ourselves there’s purpose to our future, only to die before we’re halfway down the list. Better to make muffins.

Planning becomes a fool’s errand when it gets in the way of being present. That’s what I should have seen coming.

The World Is Watching Us

How do we talk about being American?

I have been a traveler these past two weeks. First, I spent a week in Scotland and the Hebrides, then a week in Sweden with cousins. In some ways, the two weeks couldn’t have provided more contrasting experiences.

My travel companion Pat and I were on the go during our time in Scotland, sleeping in a different place virtually every night. We experienced unexpected delays, changes to our itinerary, and a storm that nearly stranded us on an island. We hiked the tallest mountain on Arran, Goatfell, which tested me physically like never before.

My time in Sweden was spent in Vasterbykil, a village of some 60 homes a few hours north of Stockholm. My days at Per and Gunnel’s lovely home were easy, languid. We sat in their garden for hours while the kites, kestrels, magpies, and skylarks filled the air with their distinctive sounds. We ate lunch in a small summer house. We lingered over every meal, and our evenings often ended at the table when we’d finished the wine. We read, we napped, we had excursions through the countryside that included a stop for coffee or lunch. One morning I got up at 3 a.m., long enough to see the midsummer sunrise.
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Since my first “real” trip—to Romania in 1972 with the Nordic Choir at Luther College my sophomore year—I’ve loved traveling. If not the planning and the jet lag, always the new places I experienced and the unexpected along the way. I’ve come home with a broader view of the world, often gratitude for what I have, and thoughts of where I might go next.

But this time, I was also reminded, as my half dozen trips to Central America reinforced, of the awkward embarrassment I feel as an American in another country. I’m reminded how much we have and expect. How extreme our political, economic, and social situations are becoming. How we keep “gaining weight” not just from food but everything else we use to excess: natural resources, power, money,  material things, and time.

The day before I flew home, I made an unexpected connection with an 84-year-old second cousin on my father’s side. Hardis was sharp, delightful, and a serious archivist of photos, articles, a log of visitors over the past 40 years (including my father in 1960), and a guestbook she asks everyone to sign.
Hardis greeted me warmly, we hugged, and then she said, “The last time I saw you was at your home in the states in 1971. Nixon was president then, but we won’t talk about that.”
Shortly after, as we sat on their porch and had coffee while it rained outside, she brought up our current president, then added, “We won’t talk about him.”

From that exchange and several others with people I met during my trip, I came home feeling that the whole world is watching us. Not with an envious eye, or out of admiration, or as a welcoming place it once was for our ancestors. More I sensed skepticism, distrust, especially concern that the America that once offered people a chance to write a new chapter to their lives has itself become a cautionary tale.